South Africa’s apartheid legacy is still hobbling research – a study of geography shows how

Knowledge matters. It informs how we think about the world around us. It informs our decisions and government policies, supporting economic growth and development.

Knowledge is also power. Certain types of knowledge are given more value than others. This is driven by histories of privilege. In South Africa, apartheid looms large in debates about how knowledge is produced. Though it formally ended 30 years ago, it still influences whose knowledge is considered “right” and whose is sidelined.

And this matters in everyday lives. For instance, health and medical research and instruction used to focus on white and male bodies. This has directly affected the provision and quality of healthcare.

Crucially, control over the production of knowledge provides political, economic and social power. This has real effects on education, healthcare, social policy and service delivery.

In a recent research paper we studied how apartheid legacies continue to affect the work of universities in South Africa. In particular we looked at the outputs of the discipline of human geography, which is our specialisation. It’s the study of how space and time influence economic, social, political and cultural actions.

We found that universities that were historically more advantaged – that is, they served mostly white students – continue to outpace the country’s other institutions in terms of research output. This was true for quantity and quality of publication outputs in journal articles and academic books and chapters.

Our findings show that apartheid’s legacy continues to affect academic output. This suggests that not enough has been done to address inequalities around funding, networking and opportunities for international collaboration. It means that South Africa’s academic landscape continues to reflect the views of a privileged few.

We examined what drove these disparities, and identified strategies to begin shifting the dial.

Historical background

The history of South African human geography as a discipline is inextricably linked with colonialism. It was heavily influenced by conservative religious ideas and notions of racial superiority. And during the apartheid era topics were deliberately studied with a notional “non-political” focus, or research was used to support apartheid legislation.

Read more:
Colonial legacies shape urban nature: why this should change

In the 1970s some research began to emerge about how apartheid policies affected Black communities. This was a first. Research had largely toed the apartheid government’s line and not focused on the deleterious effects of segregation and oppression.

But, overall, universities either served white or “non-white” students. White universities were well-resourced while others were not.

After 1994, South Africa’s human geographers turned to policy-relevant work as the country embarked on building a democracy. They began to support post-apartheid priorities related to the economy, small business and spatial development.

The same dominant hierarchies

The transition from apartheid led to the opening of South African universities. The racial make-up of institutions began to change. And South African academics began re-engaging with global academia after isolationist apartheid policies were lifted and international boycotts ended.

However, clear resourcing differences and hierarchies remain between (historically) advantaged and disadvantaged institutions. Consequently, the discipline remains dominated by a handful of departments. Their dominance is maintained by income generation (student fees, publication income, grants), networks – and prestige.

Our research shows that academics from historically disadvantaged institutions feel removed from these global and national networks.

We found a significant concentration of research outputs among a few (historically) advantaged institutions. This allows them to generate research income and mobilise international collaborations to fund larger projects. That allows academics to take on lighter teaching loads. And that gives them more time to conduct and publish research.

International collaborators are drawn by these institutions’ reputations, histories and resources. It’s easier for academics to visit international universities and participate in international funding applications. Such institutions are also able to support young human geography academics and encourage greater publication outputs in ways that under-resourced and small departments struggle to match.

Human geographers at historically advantaged universities have mobilised international networks to appoint overseas academics to honorary positions. These moves boost the institutions’ publication outputs – and their income from government subsidies and incentives.

As one interviewee described it, the cycle of opportunity and prestige for historically advantaged institutions leaves

historically Black institutions always on the back foot … the playing ground is not levelled.

The way forward

These challenges could be addressed in several ways. One approach might be for more resourced universities to support historically disadvantaged institutions in developing contacts, networks and strategic policies to attract and appoint visiting research fellows. This would open up opportunities for funding. That, ultimately, will lead to more research and knowledge being produced.

Many of our interviewees said that more collaboration was needed between historically advantaged and historically disadvantaged institutions. This should be encouraged. Human geographers from historically disadvantaged universities must be consulted about what kinds of support they need, rather than ideas being imposed by those from well-resourced institutions.

Other priorities could include stronger mentoring for early- and mid-career staff. Training is crucial, too, to develop skills in journal and grant writing. Even something as simple as institutions updating online staff profiles would be valuable. This helps to promote individuals’ research interests. It also supports network building and collaborations.

Perhaps, most of all, there’s a need – as one interviewee told us – to push for difficult conversations about inequalities and shortcomings to “shed light on what is missing”.

Ultimately, commitment is required to realise a more ethical South African human geography. The government, universities, and individual academics all have a role to play in fostering inclusion and collaboration that work beyond historical inequalities. This will help to make the sub-discipline more robust and cutting edge. And that’s ultimately beneficial to academics, students and the country at large. Läs mer…

NHS dentistry is in crisis – are overseas dentists the answer?

Images of a long line of desperate people queuing around the block in the hope of getting on the list at a new dental practice in Bristol paint a bleak picture of the state of NHS dentistry.

The situation got so desperate that police were called to provide crowd control in a scene more typical of a Taylor Swift concert than a dental waiting room. This unprecedented demand is due to a shortage of dentists in the UK, particularly ones who are willing to work for the NHS.

There may be a record number of dentists on the General Dental Council (GDC) register – over 44,000 at the start of 2024 – yet a workforce shortage is still considered a major contributing factor in the lack of dental access in the UK.

Registration figures can be misleading. Although the number of dentists in the UK is increasing, there are 1,100 fewer doing NHS work than before the pandemic, the lowest since 2012. These figures do not take into consideration changing work patterns within the dental profession, which indicate that younger dentists are working fewer clinical hours and less time within the NHS.

It is worth noting that the UK has lower numbers of dentists per head of population compared with many other European countries. The UK has 5.3 dentists per 10,000 of the population compared with 6.5 in France, 8.3 in Italy and 8.5 in Germany.

The shortage of dentists, and other dental care professionals, has finally been recognised by the government, with a NHS long-term workforce plan setting out clear goals to increase the number of training places for dentists, hygienists and dental therapists.

The government aims to increase dental training places in the UK by 40% by 2031-32, with 1,100 UK dentists qualifying each year.

Dentistry is a five-year university programme. Following that, graduates need to work for a minimum of one year as a dental foundation trainee before they are allowed to work independently as a general dental practitioner in the NHS. As a result, any increase in training places will take more than a decade to have a significant effect.

St Pauls Dental Practice in Bristol recently opened registrations for NHS patients. The queue went around the block.
PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The workforce plan will offer little in the way of solace to the millions of people who currently cannot find a dentist. Urgent action is needed to avoid lengthening queues, and the government appears to have identified overseas graduates as a potential answer to their problems.

Thirty per cent of dentists on the GDC register qualified outside the UK, and in 2022, 46% of new dentists joining the register were international dental graduates.

The process of obtaining registration for international dental graduates is difficult, expensive and inefficient. It can take several years to pass the necessary exams and obtain UK registration. During that time applicants are unable to work as a dentist.

The situation is compounded by a limited number of examination places each year and a low pass rate for the practical exam (45%).

The GDC has announced an increase in exam capacity, which will allow more dentists to take the overseas registration exams. This is a practical approach to increase capacity while safeguarding standards.

No need to pass UK exam

The government has just announced a further development: the introduction of provisional registration, aimed at accelerating the registration process and allowing international dental graduates to work as a dentist without having to pass a UK examination.

This has already caused concern within the dental profession, with some commentators fearful that patient safety will be sacrificed in a race to increase dentist numbers and improve NHS access.

This view is clearly not shared by the GDC who have been quick to welcome the introduction of provisional registration.

The GDC has a responsibility to ensure that any dental professional joining the dental register has undergone the appropriate training, is capable of providing a high standard of patient care, and is fully aware of their responsibilities as a dental registrant.

The NHS is a complex system, and the current NHS dental contract and regulations are complicated and confusing. UK graduates often struggle to comprehend the nuances of the NHS, and international dental graduates will need support to ensure they are able to integrate into a new system.

Training and mentorship are important considerations. This will be a critical aspect of integrating overseas dentists into the NHS and ensuring the highest standards of care are maintained. This cannot be done without the support of the existing primary care workforce, and consideration must be given to how this is going to be delivered and resourced.

Patient safety

International dental graduates are an important part of the solution to the current workforce shortage, and a review of the present registration process was certainly long overdue. There is huge potential to use an overseas workforce more effectively, but we must ensure that patient safety remains paramount.

We must also reflect on the ethical implications of recruiting dentists from another country while considering the fairness and appropriateness of introducing international dental graduates into a widely criticised NHS system. Sustainability and continuity are valuable assets in healthcare, and the creation of a two-tier system delivered by an itinerant workforce must be avoided at all costs.

Simplifying the recruitment of overseas dentists will not save NHS dentistry alone. The problems run much deeper than a simple workforce shortage. There needs to be an honest discussion with the public, the profession and politicians about NHS dentistry. What do we want? What do we need? And what can we afford? There is no merit in recruiting more dentists if there is no commitment to address the reason so many of the workforce are leaving the NHS. Läs mer…

Ditching meat could release vital land to produce energy and remove carbon from the atmosphere – new study

A radical reduction in the amount of meat, dairy and other products sourced from animals is possible in the coming decades, as people turn to an increasing variety of alternatives. This would unlock vast amounts of land currently used to rear animals and to grow crops that feed them.

We recently published research that considered what might happen if demand for animal products really did decrease and the newly released agricultural land was instead used to grow crops for renewable energy and carbon removal. In short, we found the potential benefits are huge.

Replacing animal-sourced products at a large scale may seem unthinkable at present. But new alternatives, such as plant-based mock meat or lab-grown meat, could closely match the real thing in taste and texture. With time, they may even beat them in costs.

For now, replacing animal-sourced products often means paying a premium and sacrificing taste. It is niche groups concerned about their health, the environment, or animal welfare who are willing to pay. But in the future, a similar experience at a lower cost may make these alternatives go mainstream.

Unlocking the potential of an old climate friend and foe

All this would free up huge amounts of land and water, since there would be less need for fields full of cows, chickens or pigs, or for crops grown to feed them. In our research, we estimated that fully replacing animal-sourced products would release more than 60% of the world’s agricultural land. Other researchers think as much as 75% might be released.

While a full replacement is unlikely, studies by various consultancies suggest a more modest amount of meat might be phased out, perhaps 10%-30% by 2030 or 30%-70% by 2050. But even these would free up extensive agricultural areas.

What would we do with all that land? Simply leaving it alone might be the most sensible solution in many cases. This way, the land can gradually return to its natural state, storing carbon, regulating the climate and providing habitat for wild animals.

But we could also use that land to produce energy while removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, through a process known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (Beccs).

Beccs has gone in and out of fashion

Bioenergy crops, grown on newly freed agricultural land, would capture CO₂ from the atmosphere and store it as carbon (plants and animals are mostly made of water and carbon). The crops would be used as fuel to produce energy, which would turn the carbon back into CO₂.

Fields for livestock and their food could instead grow bioenergy crops.
Angela Lo / unsplash, CC BY-SA

However, instead of simply releasing it back to the atmosphere (as conventional bioenergy systems do today), the CO₂ would be captured and permanently stored deep underground. This way, the system would generate a net removal of CO₂ from the atmosphere in many cases.

After Beccs was first proposed over two decades ago, many scientists embraced the idea and included it in plans to address climate change. In recent years, however, they have increasingly advised against it.

These scientists say that growing more crops would mean converting more forests and other natural ecosystems into agricultural land, while the water used to irrigate the crops would mean less left for people and ecosystems. And they point out that competition for agricultural land with food crops could threaten food security.

Beccs could overcome its main challenges

In our research, we have estimated how a move away from animal-sourced products could help overcome those challenges and unlock substantial potential for Beccs. By using agricultural land that is no longer needed, Beccs would avoid any need for agricultural expansion or water stress, and it would mean enough food could still be produced for everyone.

The authors estimate that Beccs could replace animal agriculture across much of the world.
Rueda et al (2024) / One Earth, CC BY-SA

If 50% of animal products were replaced by 2050, that could release enough land for Beccs to generate as much electricity as coal power does today (about a third of the global total), while removing almost the same amount of carbon as coal currently emits. Alternatively, Beccs could produce around half the projected global hydrogen demand in 2050, with a similar amount of “negative emissions”.

We estimated these negative emissions by adding up how much carbon Beccs would take from the atmosphere and store underground, minus the emissions from growing the bioenergy crops and converting them into energy. And we then deducted the carbon that would have been stored by regrowing plants if we left the released agricultural land alone and did nothing.

We also found that many countries, including the biggest polluters, could store all the captured CO₂ deep underground within their territories.

All this sounds highly attractive. However, we cannot take for granted that the potential of Beccs will actually be harnessed.

Its sustainability challenges might be tackled by people eating less meat, but various technical, social, and political challenges may still hinder its adoption. We also still don’t know exactly how plant-based and cultivated meats will be adopted and what their impact will be.

The good news is that the plant-based alternatives that are currently available already offer a more certain potential to release vast land and water in the short term. It is up to nations and individuals to make the most of it. Läs mer…

Taiwan election 2024: how presidential candidates left women voters unimpressed

Lai Ching-te (also known as William Lai) of the Democratic Progressive Party was elected as the new president of Taiwan in January, beating Hou Yu-ih and Ko Wen-je of the Kuomintang and Taiwan People’s Party respectively.

Lai picked Hsiao Bi-khim to be his running mate. Hsiao, who had been Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the US since 2020, is the second woman to become vice president in Taiwan.

Seeing women on the tickets for major political seats is not unusual for Taiwanese voters. Taiwan’s national legislature has almost attained gender parity, significantly higher than the global average, and in 2016 it elected a woman as president (Tsai Ing-wen).

Nevertheless, no presidential candidate in the recent election offered concrete plans for how to achieve gender equality in society and, perhaps as a result, did not attract a great deal of support from women. Instead, candidates who chose women as their vice-presidential running mates appeared to do so as a political gesture aimed at attracting support from women, rather than displaying any real intent to advance gender equality in Taiwan.

Lai Ching-te (William Lai) and his running mate Hsiao Bi-Khim during a campaign rally.

Misogyny throughout the campaigns

As Taiwan geared up for the election, all three candidates spoke about the importance of gender diversity. But none of them truly campaigned for gender justice, at least not with any real conviction.

Ko advocated for the legalisation of surrogacy and gender-neutral bathrooms. Hou campaigned for incorporating gender diversity and equality in school curriculum’s and workplaces. Lai offered no nuances as his platform did not differ much from his opponents.

However, the Modern Women’s Foundation and other leading women’s organisations demanded that attention be paid to gender-based violence, the gender pay gap, state-subsidised care and, among other things, women’s ministerial representation. Their efforts were to no avail as none of the candidates offered a concrete solution to any of these problems.

The election also scored high for misogynistic remarks from candidates. Since being elected as the mayor of Taipei ten years ago, Ko has regularly made sexist comments – for example, after a rally in July 2023 where a woman held a sign listing his remarks, his supporters harassed her online. Ko refused to take responsibility for his own statements, saying: “What has that got to do with me?”

Hou also has a history of objectifying women. At a press conference in 2018 where Hou launched a ride-sharing policy, he complimented the woman host’s appearance and age, saying she had an “unsafe face”. He proceeded by saying that ride sharing would allow men like him to make friends with young women.

Appealing to women voters

Needless to say, the main electoral battles in January did not focus on women’s issues. They mainly concentrated on relations with China and on the cost of living. Women make up half of Taiwan’s population, yet their issues were largely ignored.

This lack of appeal was reflected in voting. Based on our own analysis of Taiwan’s Election and Democratization Study (which collects data of voting behaviour and changes in democratic values), all three candidates struggled to secure support from women.

Lai, the eventual successor, stood out as the only candidate to receive a positive response from women. But even then, only 40% of women without clear political preferences (characterised here as “median voters”) said they voted for him.

More than half of women voters expressed unfavourable views towards Ko and Hou. Ko particularly lagged in women’s support, despite enjoying considerable backing from men.Further analysis revealed an interplay between gender, education, age and candidate preference. Among college-educated men, 63% favoured Ko, compared with only 49% of college-educated women. And among those aged between 30 and 39 years, men favoured Ko to a significantly greater degree than women.

This gender gap suggests that highly educated women, and those in their 30s, were more critical of Ko than men. The differences in support based on gender, age and education were less pronounced for Hou and Lai.

Hou’s supporters are predominantly older, with no significant differences in gender across various ages or educational levels. On the other hand, Lai attracts slightly more college-educated women than men.

Ko Wen-je, the presidential candidate from the Taiwan People’s Party.
Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/Shutterstock

Selective running mates

Polling taken before running mates were announced suggested a neck-and-neck competition, with no candidate demonstrating a substantial lead. This tight race underscored the importance of median voters.

Research suggests that, while vice president picks do not usually sway the electorate broadly, they can appeal to particular voter segments. Therefore, Lai and Ko both made strategic choices of women to be their vice presidential picks.

But did this strategy pay off? The popularity of both Lai and Ko with women voters saw no improvement. In fact, Ko’s support among women continued to decline even after introducing his running mate. His challenge in securing women’s support shows that putting a woman on the ticket was not enough to counteract his misogyny and boost women’s support.

Many challenges on gender inequality and injustice await Lai. He campaigned by prioritising other issues such as care for the elderly and the minimum wage. But even these issues cannot be addressed without accounting for gender.

Domestic needs like this can only be resolved by systematically evaluating and incorporating the interests and needs of women. Läs mer…

Relationship anarchy is about creating bonds that suit people, not social conventions

By its very nature, friendship is anarchic: it has few rules and is not regulated by the government. Our friendships are usually egalitarian, flexible and non-exclusive. We treat our friends as individuals and care about their interests. We support them and don’t tell them what to do; our friendships fit around, rather than govern, our lives.

But interestingly, friendship is the exception when it comes to intimacy. Few of us want anarchic love lives, or to treat our children as equals. We gravitate instead towards more rigid, hierarchical, structured forms of intimacy in these relationships.

Relationship anarchists do not hold with these ideas. They argue we must try harder to relate as equals, reject hierarchy between relationships and accept that intimate life can take many forms.

Critics would suggest relationship anarchy is just a lifestyle – an attempt to evade commitment. But the concept is best understood as political, and a development of the core themes of anarchist thinking. This reflects the values and practices involved, and reminds us that the flourishing of intimacy might require radical change.

These core themes include rejecting the idea that there should be one dominant form of authority – like a president, boss or patriarch; wariness of social class or status which arbitrarily privileges some people other others; and a deep respect for the idea that individuals should be able to govern their own lives and support each other. Applied to intimate relationships, these themes define relationship anarchy.

But political anarchism is not above violence and disorder. As someone whose work explores the philosophy of love, sex and relationships – and different approaches to intimacy – I view it as an attitude towards our social predicament where people try to relate as equals and reject unnecessary constraints.

Equals without constraints

Relationship anarchists critique society and imagine alternatives. Their main target is the idea that there are different kinds of relationships and some are more important than others.

They reject how relationships appear in the media; good relationships needn’t last forever, be exclusive, between two people, domestic, involve romantic love or practical entanglement. This critical eye also extends to our attitudes towards children, animals and the environment.

Relationship anarchy’s aversion to hierarchy separates it from swinging or forms of polyamory which distinguish between sex and romance, “primary” and “secondary” partners, or which think the government should privilege some relationships through marriage law.

The practical heart of relationship anarchy is the idea that we design relationships to suit us, not mirror social expectations. Do we want to share a home? Is sexual intimacy important? If so, what kind exactly? This process also involves creating a framework to guide our broader intimate life. How will we choose together? How and when can we revise our framework? What about disagreements?

Relationship anarchists will disagree about the content of these frameworks. Can two relationship anarchists agree to be romantically exclusive, for example, set rules for each other, or decide to never revise their framework? Should they retain, repurpose or reject common labels such as “partner”?

My own view is that agreements are acceptable if they support our ability to be intimate, but we should embrace “minimal non-monogamy” and remain open to the possibility our desires will change.

Relationship anarchy is often seen as a fad or a lifestyle.
Shawn Goldberg / Shutterstock

Community and self-development

Community is central to relationship anarchy. From queer feminist Andie Nordgren’s “short instructional manifesto” – which jumpstarted relationship anarchy – to zines like Communities Not Couples, the relationship “smorgasbord” and social media influencers, relationship anarchists educate each other and share resources.

They also embrace supporting each other when social institutions are inadequate. This might involve providing money, establishing accessible community spaces, sourcing contraception and caregiving.

Relationship anarchy requires self-development. Since we are shaped by our social context, we often lack the skills needed to overhaul our relationships, whether that’s communicating effectively or managing emotions such as jealousy and insecurity.

Relationship anarchists embrace the idea that we cannot behave now in ways that would be unacceptable in our ideal society. We cannot be callous or dishonest in trying to bring about open and equal relationships. Instead, trying to embody our desired changes in our actions helps us develop the skills needed to ensure these changes are sustainable.

Talk of relationship anarchy often prompts objections. Liberals think government involvement in private life prevents harm, and that common social norms and ideals of relationships prevent anxiety. A relationship anarchist would ask us to consider the real source of these worries.

We are well able to harm each other within existing government frameworks: police, immigration, social and health services often harm people in unconventional relationships through policies that do not recognise the family life of non-heterosexual people. Or which make it hard for immigrant families to be together, or deny visitation rights to unmarried people, for example.

Community networks of care are active in resisting and repairing these harms, and their efforts are evidence that we can successfully oversee our own needs when it comes to intimacy.

Similarly, a more active approach to our relationships, where we reflect on our needs and desires, set boundaries and communicate, builds confidence and decreases anxiety. A realistic and flexible attitude towards intimacy makes it harder to trip on the gap between ideals and reality.

Realism, not revolution, is at the heart of relationship anarchy. Social criticism can be radical – ranging from love and domesticity to childcare, companionship and co-operation – but efforts to remould our relationships should be done with care. We can both expose social contradictions and oppressive laws and accept common ground with other views and initiatives.

Most of all, we should be wary of attempts to cast relationship anarchy as a fad or lifestyle. It is political – a commitment to nurture agency when it comes to intimacy. Like conversation, relationship anarchy is a process; it can be messy, loud, and unpredictable, but it can change us entirely. Läs mer…

The bog is where forensics and archaeology meet to solve ‘cold cases’

Occasionally, police investigators find themselves announcing archaeological discoveries, rather than criminal findings. In 1984, for example, police oversaw the recovery of the Iron Age bog body (a naturally mummified corpse found in a peat bog) later called “Lindow Man” in Cheshire, UK. On January 25, 2024, the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) found themselves doing just that.

The civilian discovery, and subsequent PSNI excavation, of a 2,000 year old bog body at Bellaghy, in the Londonderry county of Northern Ireland, is significant because of the rarity of prehistoric human remains that include soft tissue preservation. As with The Lindow Man, the initial investigations were conducted by the police in case the remains were those of a recent murder victim – making the location a crime scene rather than an archaeological site.

It was only following radiocarbon dating of the remains from Bellaghy that the body, by then identified as that of a young male, was shown to have lived during the Iron Age.

In a statement, Detective Inspector Nikki Deehan said: “On initial examination, we couldn’t be sure if the remains were ancient or the result of a more recent death. Therefore, we proceeded to excavate the body with full forensic considerations in a sensitive and professional manner. This approach also ensures that any DNA evidence could be secured for any potential criminal investigation.”

Police find bog body dated over 2,000 years in Bellaghy.

There have been at least 2,000 bog bodies recovered from Europe’s peatlands, with around 130 found in Ireland. Archaeological excavations of bog bodies are very rare, as the great majority of bog bodies are discovered ex situ – removed from their surroundings during peat cutting or by the actions of the finders.

The excavation of the Bellaghy Body by PSNI with support from forensic archaeologists points to the importance of careful and methodical recovery, for understanding both ancient and modern human remains found in peatlands.

Navigating the bog

Archaeologists need to understand context to interpret the past, and the peaty graves of bog bodies are no different. The Bellaghy body seems to have been found in situ, potentially offering valuable evidence associated with the circumstances of the death. This is important as it may assist in interpreting the violent ends met by other prehistoric bog bodies, some of whom have been interpreted as sacrificial victims.

Peatlands are remarkable archaeological archives, but the earth does not neatly divide traces of the distant and recent past. Archaeology and forensic science still have much to learn from each other. For example, the discovery of Lindow Man directly influenced the searches for the victims of the serial killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley on Saddleworth Moor in 1986 and 1987.

During The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Irish Civil Rights leader Bernadette Devlin wrote about the IRA using a site called The Black Bog in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, to hide evidence of their activities.

Ecocritic Maureen O’Connor and archaeologist Benjamin Gearey have explored the role of peatlands during the Irish War of Independence, sometimes used to hide both the dead and the living.

Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, The Independent Commission for the Location of Victim Remains (ICLVR) has sought to locate people who went missing during The Troubles, often referred to as “the disappeared”. In the commission’s search over the last 25 years, four people remain missing, including suspected IRA murder victim Columba McVeigh, who is believed to have been buried at Bragan Bog in the Monaghan county in Ireland.

Excavations of peatland at North York Moors.
Author provided (no reuse)

The challenge of the bog

While forensic archaeologists have a very specific brief to fulfil, they are as likely to uncover traces of the distant past as they are traces of modern crimes.

In searching for modern victims of murder, the forensic archaeologist who uncovers evidence of the distant past has the same duty of care as all other archaeologists – to observe, record and recover traces of human activity. It is hoped that the PSNI recovery of the Bellaghy Boy will in time result in the release of information about the burial site for archaeologists to pore over.

Peatlands are challenging environments for both archaeological and forensic investigations. They are difficult to survey for traces of graves or evidence of recent disturbance, making it hard to detect anything other than the solid geology below the peat.

While peatlands might seem timeless in their appearance, they have changed significantly over the millennia. They have been subject to drainage and peat cutting for fuel, the planting of woodlands, agricultural use, settlement and burned for grouse raising. Most recently, some have been restored for biodiversity and carbon capture.

The peatland in which a person was buried in the 1970s might look very different to that under investigation in 2024, let alone two millennia ago.

Archaeologists are fascinated by change and continuity, and bogs offer both in spades. Peatlands have long provided locations where bodies might be deposited without apparent trace, and even today we often rely on chance to bring them to our attention.

The riddles of finding a body in a bog perplex police investigators, archaeologists and forensic scientists alike. While the archaeological record may show strikingly similar patterns of body deposition across time, very different motives and interpretations might lie behind these cases.

We need to think in terms of developing “best practice” for excavating future bog bodies, drawing on contemporary approaches to investigating homicides. The work of the PSNI at Bellaghy could provide invaluable insights in this regard.

For archaeologists and forensic archaeologists, the future recording and reporting of bodies found in the bogs of Europe might help us better understand what human stories lie behind the patterns of those trackless, mossy graves.

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Rare megamouth shark found in east Africa for the first time – why so little is known about it

A rarely seen megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) was recently spotted in east Africa for the very first time. It was recorded in a market in Zanzibar, where it was being sold after being captured and killed. The recent sighting was only the sixth time a megamouth had ever been found off the coast of Africa. Marine biologist Rhett H. Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society explains the implications of the find.

What is the megamouth shark and why is it so rare?

The megamouth is a large-bodied shark found all over the world. Its name, megamouth, comes from its large mouth. Shaped a bit like a tadpole, with a huge mouth that takes up half its head, it was first discovered in 1976 when one got tangled up in a navy boat’s anchor chain in Hawaii. Since then, fewer than 280 megamouth sharks have ever been spotted anywhere in the world. There is not a lot known about this species.

Officially the megamouth has been recorded to reach 7 metres in length, slightly larger than a great white shark (which can reach 6.4m). However, most megamouth sharks recorded to date have been less than about 5.5m long. This is about the length of a tiger shark or the height of an adult giraffe.

People may confuse the megamouth shark with the megalodon, the big, prehistoric shark species that was said to be so much bigger than any other shark. But the megamouth is a gentle giant, with no large, sharp teeth. It cruises around quietly, similar to a whale shark.

It is not a top predator that feeds on tuna fish or marine mammals, but rather a filter feeder that feeds on plankton, and is the smallest of only three shark species in the world that are filter feeders. Megamouth sharks are hardly ever seen, which suggests it is likely a solitary type of animal.

What is known about the first megamouth seen in east Africa?

This megamouth shark was caught by an artisanal fishing vessel in Zanzibar’s waters, and then landed at a beach on Pemba Island. The shark was sold for about 43,000 Tanzanian shillings (US$17), probably for consumption in the local communities.

It was sad to see the photos of the dead animal laid out on the beach, but definitely an important new record. This was only the sixth megamouth ever seen in Africa, with one previous sighting each in South Africa, Gabon, Liberia, Senegal and Mauritania between 1995 and 2020.

Scientists’ photos of the megamouth that was found being sold in Chole market on Pemba Island in Zanzibar.
Courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society, Tanzania Marine Programme

As the only individual megamouth shark ever found along the east coast of Africa, this finding extends the areas of the world’s oceans in which the shark is known to live, filling what used to be a gap in its otherwise near-global distribution.

My colleagues, Abdalla S. Abdulla of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Tanzania Marine Programme and David van Beuningen of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Western Indian Ocean Shark Programme, and I analyse thousands of photographs of dead sharks at landing sites, where fisheries offload what they have caught, including unwanted animals accidentally caught in their fishing gear.

We usually see the same 20 to 30 shark species over and over. So seeing the first megamouth ever in this area was a freak record – one of those rare occurrences and one of the most interesting we have had.

How can the shark be extremely rare, yet not endangered?

The megamouth shark is classified as a species of Least Concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species because it is found all over the world. This means it is likely that its numbers are far greater than the 280 that people have recorded to date. The good news is that even these 280 sightings were not all captures by fishing boats. We conclude from this that fishing operations have minimal impact on the species currently. This may be because the animals use habitats not targeted by fishing vessels.

How can marine biologists research this rare creature?

The first ever pregnant megamouth shark to be found washed up in the Philippines in December 2023. It was 5.5m long and each of its unborn pups had been expelled from the mother’s body on the shore. This was the first scientific confirmation that the megamouth, like most sharks, gives birth to live young, as opposed to laying eggs.

In time, if multiple records of megamouths occurred in the same place, scientists might want to focus some dedicated research effort in that area. However, for our research programme in east Africa, we do not have the resources to pursue that in detail. We would be spending hours and hours in the ocean and might never find another megamouth. This is why it is important to share this kind of information, in order to contribute additional pieces to the megamouth puzzle.

Anyone who comes across a megamouth shark should notify any nature conservation or government fishery department, or make contact with the Wildlife Conservation Society, or the nearest aquarium.

(Abdalla S. Abdulla and David van Beuningen co-authored the original article on this research.) Läs mer…

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Jason Clare on the future of education in Australia

The government has released its Universities Accord report, produced by a committee chaired by Mary O’Kane, a former vice-chancellor at the University of Adelaide.

The recommendations will be considered by the Minister for Education, Jason Clare and the government over the coming months, although Clare has given a few hints about what his response might be on certain issues.

One proposal Clare clearly favours is for an Australian Tertiary Education Commission which the report says would “provide the leadership and stewardship necessary to transform the tertiary education system”. Clare says it would give

the ability to steer and drive reform over the long term. This [accord] is a blueprint for 20 years, not for two years – it strikes me as a good idea.

The report canvasses a range of changes to assist students cope better financially. One is to pay students for time spent in (now unpaid) placements, which are often extensive in courses such as nursing and teaching. Clare is sympathetic.

I’ve spent the last year or so in this job talking to students. They tell me about the impact that has, often having to move to do the prac – having to give up the part-time job, working in the cafe or the restaurant or wherever else, to do unpaid work, and sometimes having to give up the degree […]. The theory can’t do the prac, can’t get the qualifications. So it strikes me this is the sort of thing that governments need to work on. And as I said, this is the sort of thing that I want us to have a look at.

On why the government isn’t hastening to do more now, Clare describes why he takes the long-term view.

Often we get criticised in government for just having quick fixes or thinking about what’s around the corner, what’s the immediate problem that needs to be solved. If we’re serious about fixing things in education, you’ve got to think long term. Läs mer…

Secrets in the canopy: scientists discover 8 striking new bee species in the Pacific

After a decade searching for new species of bees in forests of the Pacific Islands, all we had to do was look up.

We soon found eight new species of masked bees in the forest canopy: six in Fiji, one in French Polynesia and another in Micronesia. Now we expect to find many more.

Forest-dwelling bees evolved for thousands of years alongside native plants, and play unique and important roles in nature. Studying these species can help us better understand bee evolution, diversity and conservation.

Almost 21,000 bee species are known to science. Many more remain undiscovered. But it’s a race against time, as the twin challenges of habitat loss and climate change threaten bee survival. We need to identify and protect bee species before they disappear forever.

Searching for bees in the rainforest on Vanua Levu, formerly known as Sandalwood Island, the second largest island of Fiji.
James Dorey Photography

Introducing the new masked bees

Pollinators abound in forests. But scientific research has tended to focus on bees living closer to the ground.

We believe this sampling bias is replicated across much of the world. For example, another related Oceanic masked bee, Pharohylaeus lactiferus (a cloaked bee), was recently found in the canopy after 100 years in hiding.

This masked bee was collected from a canopy-flowering mistletoe near Mount Nadarivatu on Viti Levu, Fiji.
James Dorey Photography

Our first decade of bee sampling in Fiji turned up only one bee from the genus Hylaeus. This bee probably belonged in the canopy so we were very lucky to catch it near the ground. Targeted attempts over the next few years, using our standard short insect nets, failed to find any more.

But this changed when we turned our attention to searching the forest canopy.

Sampling in the canopy is physically challenging. Strength and skill are required to sweep a long, heavy net and pole through the treetops. It’s quite a workout. We limit our efforts to the edges of forests, where branches won’t tangle the whole contraption.

By lifting our gaze in this way, we discovered eight new bee species, all in the genus Hylaeus. They are mostly black with stunning yellow or white highlights, especially on their faces – hence the name, masked bees.

They appear to rely exclusively on the forest canopy. This behaviour is striking and has rarely been identified in bees before (perhaps because few scientists have been looking for bees up there).

Because the new species live in forests and native tree tops, they’re likely to be vulnerable to land clearing, cyclones and climate change.

More work is needed to uncover the secrets hidden in these dense tropical treetops. It may require engineering solutions such as canopy cranes and drones, as well as skilful tree-climbing using ropes, pulleys and harnesses.

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Michener’s missing links

The journey of bees across the Pacific region is a tale of great dispersals and isolation.

Almost 60 years ago, world-renowned bee expert Charles Michener described what was probably the most isolated masked bee around, Hylaeus tuamotuensis.

Fiji’s highest peak, Mount Tomanivi, is home to unique bee species.
James Dorey Photography

The specimen was found in French Polynesia. At the time, Michener said that was “entirely unexpected”, because the nearest relatives were, as the bee flies, 4,000km north in Hawaii, 5,000km southwest in New Zealand, and 6,000km west in Australia.

So how did it get there and where did it come from?

Our research helps to answer these questions. We found eight new Hylaeus species including one from French Polynesia. Using genetic analysis and other methods, we found strong links between these species and H. tuamotuensis.

So Michener’s bee was probably an ancient immigrant from Fiji, 3,000km away. A journey of that magnitude is no mean feat for bees smaller than a grain of rice.

Of course, there are more than 1,700 islands in the Pacific, which can serve as stepping stones for bees on their long journeys.

We don’t yet know how many new Hylaeus species might exist in the South Pacific, or the routes they took to get to their island homes. But we suspect there are many more to be found.

Read more:
Phantom of the forest: after 100 years in hiding, I rediscovered the rare cloaked bee in Australia

Our Pacific emissaries

The early origins of Fijian bees – both ground-dwelling Homalictus and forest-loving Hylaeus – can be traced to the ancient past when Australia and New Guinea were part of one land mass, known as Sahul. The ancestors of both groups then undertook epic oceanic journeys to travel from Sahul to the furthest reaches of the Pacific, where they diversified. But the Hylaeus travelled furthest, by thousands of kilometres.

These little emissaries have similarly brought together researchers across the region. We resolved difficulties sampling and gathering knowledge by working with people across the Pacific, including Fiji, French Polynesia, and Hawaii. It shows what can be accomplished with international collaboration.

Together we are making great strides towards understanding our shared bee biodiversity. Such collaborations are our best chance of discovering and conserving species while we can.

We would like to thank Ben Parslow and Karl Magnacca for their contribution to this article. We would further like to thank our collaborators and their home institutions, the Hawiian Department of Land and Natural Resources, Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, University of the South Pacific, the South Australian Museum and Adelaide University. Läs mer…

What happens when we outsource boring but important work to AI? Research shows we forget how to do it ourselves

In 2009, an Air France jet crashed into the ocean, leaving no survivors. The plane’s autopilot system shut down and the pilots, having become reliant on their computerised assistant, were unable to correct the situation manually.

In 2015, a bus driver in Europe typed the wrong destination into his GPS device and cheerfully took a group of Belgian tourists on a 1,200 kilometre detour in the wrong direction.

In 2017, in a decision later overturned on appeal, US prosecutors who had agreed to release a teenager on probation abruptly changed their minds because an algorithm ruled the defendant “high risk”.

These are dramatic examples, but they are far from isolated. When we outsource cognitive tasks to technology – such as flying a plane, navigating, or making a judgement – research shows we may lose the ability to perform those tasks ourselves. There is even a term for our tendency to forget information that is available through online search engines: the Google effect.

As new AI technologies promise to automate an increasing range of activities, the risk of “skill erosion” is growing. Our research shows how it can happen – and suggests ways to keep hold of the expertise you need, even when you don’t need it every day.

Skill erosion can cripple an organisation

My research shows the risk of skill erosion is easily overlooked. In a recent study, my team and I examined skill erosion in an accounting company.

The company had recently stopped using software that automated much of its fixed-asset accounting service. However, the accountants found themselves unable to carry out the task without it. Years of over-reliance on the software had eroded their expertise, and ultimately, they had to relearn their fixed-asset accounting skills.

While the software was rule-based (it did not use machine learning or “AI”), it was “smart” enough to track depreciation and produce reports for many tax and financial purposes. These are tasks that human accountants found very complex and tedious.

The company only became aware of skill erosion after a client found errors in the accounting team’s manual reports. With its accountants lacking sufficient expertise, the company had to commission the software provider to fix the errors.

How skill erosion happens

We found that a lack of mindfulness about the automation-supported task had led to skill erosion. The old saying, “use it or lose it”, applies to cognitively intense work as much as to anything else.

The accountants were not concerned about outsourcing their thinking to the software, since it operated almost flawlessly. In other words, they fell prey to “automation complacency”: the assumption that “all is well” while ignoring potential risks.

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This had three major consequences:

they lost their awareness of what automation was doing
they lost the incentive to maintain and update relevant knowledge (such as tax legislation), because the vendor and software did that for them
as the software was reliable, they no longer bothered to check the outgoing reports for accuracy.

How to maintain your skills

So, how do you prevent complacency while using AI and other automated systems? Here are three tips:

pay attention to what the system is doing – what inputs are used, for what purpose, and what might affect its suggestions
keep your competence up to date (especially if you are legally accountable for the outcomes)
critically assess the results, even if the final outcomes appear satisfactory.

Keeping your skills sharp while using automated systems requires paying close attention.

What would this look like in practice? Here’s an everyday example: driving with the help of an AI-powered navigation app.

Instead of blindly following the app’s instructions, pay attention to road signs and landmarks, and be aware of what you are doing even when guided by the app.

Study the map and suggested route before driving to increase your “domain knowledge”, or understanding of what is around the route. This helps you relate your specific path to the broader environment, which will be helpful if you get lost or want to find alternative routes.

When you reach your destination, reflect on the route the app suggested: was it fast, was it safe, was it enjoyable? If not, consider taking a different route next time, even if the app suggests otherwise.

Is AI a necessary companion?

The case of the accounting firm also raises a bigger question: what skills are relevant and worth maintaining, and which ones should we relinquish to automation?

There is no universal answer, as professional skills change across time, jurisdictions, industries, cultures and geographical locations. However, it is a question we will have to contend with as AI takes over activities once considered unable to be automated.

Read more:
Drowning in ’digital debt’? AI assistants can help – but we must use them carefully

Despite the struggles, the accounting manager in our case study believes the automated software is highly beneficial. In his view, his team just got caught off guard by complacency.

In a world focused on efficiency and annual or quarterly targets, organisations favour solutions that improve things in the short term, even if they have negative long-term side effects. This is what happened in the accounting case: efficiency gains overshadowed abstract concerns about expertise, until problems ensued.

This does not mean that we should avoid AI. Organisations cannot afford to miss out on the opportunities it presents. However, they should also be aware of the risk of skill erosion. Läs mer…